Created: 2/10/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
Later this month we will host the Chicago Volunteer Expo, now in its fourth year. We are proud to be the home of this city-wide event that showcases hundreds of volunteer opportunities at over 85 nonprofit and community organizations. Join us on Sunday, February 28, from 10am to 4pm, to find the opportunity that’s right for you.
Need a little motivation? Here’s why we think you should be there:
- It’s free. There’s not a lot more to be said here. Who doesn’t love a Sunday outing that costs nothing?
- It takes place at the Nature Museum. Instead of a giant, boring convention center, we hold the Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Not only will you get to learn about hundreds of volunteer opportunities all over the city, you’ll also have the chance to explore our exhibits. You can meet live critters, check out our historic collections, and get acquainted with urban nature. And I challenge you to find a more pleasant place to be on a February afternoon than our Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, which we keep at 80 degrees.
- You’ll have real conversations, with real people representing great causes. Sure, you could go online and search for volunteer opportunities, but an in-person conversation just can’t be beat when it comes to decisions like where to volunteer your time. Sometimes the most interesting opportunities are at tiny organizations that are not posted online and don’t show up in Google searches. Even if you do find a good opportunity listed, too often you fill out an inquiry and simply never hear back from anyone. At the Chicago Volunteer Expo, you can personally meet with more than 85 organizations and learn immediately how you can help make an impact with your valuable volunteer time.
- Instant gratification. Even while you’re still browsing the options at the Expo, you can start lending a hand on the spot. We call it speed volunteering – it’s kind of like speed dating, but less awkward. All day long, you can help turn used plastic grocery bags into beautiful and functional sleeping mats for the homeless. It only takes minutes, and you can see your impact immediately.
- School credit or brownie points at work. Most schools now require service learning of some kind, but it can be hard for teens to find volunteer work. We carefully curate the organizations that come to this event, and 59% of them offer volunteer opportunities for teens. Another common challenge is finding opportunities for groups of coworkers to volunteer together – it’s great for teambuilding, but a lot of places just can’t accommodate groups. Never fear: 61% of the organizations at the Expo will take groups.
- Volunteering might make you happier. It’s been studied! People who volunteer are happier than people who don’t, and some researchers have even found a causal effect – volunteering actually caused the increase in happiness. If you’re feeling those wintertime blues, why not lend a hand for a cause you care about? You might find that it’s mutually beneficial.
Jill DoubView Comments
Senior Director of Public Engagement
Created: 1/14/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The Chicago Academy of Sciences has been a leader in local ecology and scientific education for 159 years. To commemorate the anniversary of our founding on January 13, 1857, our new exhibit, "Chicago's Explorers," highlights the institution's scientific and educational activities. The exhibit will be on display at the Nature Museum through the end of February.
If you'd like to learn more about the Academy's history, check out our detailed timeline, which will continue to grow as we continue to explore. We hope you enjoy our exhibit and get out to explore nature in Chicago with us!
Director of Collections
The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839
(Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)
The Saloon Building is where Chicago’s first city government was formed and oversaw the fastest growing city in the world. It was also here that a group of forward-thinking scientists, physicians, and business leaders founded The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences on January 13, 1857. Some of these founders had been a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors just 11 years earlier. The institution was incorporated in 1859 as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences,” which remains our institutional name today.
Robert Kennicott, ca. 1860 (left)
(Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Kennicott’s caribou shirt, ca. 1860 (right)
The collections of Robert Kennicott formed the core of the Academy’s initial scientific collections. His expansive studies of Illinois fauna resulted in the discovery of many species new to science, some of which were named after him by other scientists, including the stripe-tail darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicotti). Kennicott also led the first U.S. scientific study of Russian America—the place that eventually became the state of Alaska. He died there while on expedition, on May 13, 1866.
The Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days from October 8 to 10, 1871. On the final day, the fire approached the Academy. The building was equipped with a fire proof vault and, with this in mind, staff quickly stored everything of importance there, expecting the building to be damaged but their valuable scientific collections and research notes to be saved. The heat from the fire was so great that it melted the supports of an ornamental limestone cornice at the top of the building, causing it to fall and crash through the roof of the vault. This structural failure allowed the fire to sweep inside and destroy the vault’s contents, along with the museum and most of the rest of the collections.
Academy staff were devastated. William Stimpson, the Academy’s director from 1866 to 1872 and a prominent malacologist (a scientist who studies shelled animals such as clams), lost his life’s work in the fire. In just a few moments the “the Smithsonian of the West” and the fourth largest scientific collection in the country was gone, and the Academy’s future was in question.
Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, 1894
Following the fire, the scientific community and public rallied around the Academy. Businessman and philanthropist Matthew Laflin was the primary funder for a new building, which opened on October 31, 1894 in Lincoln Park. In this new space, much of the Academy’s earlier scientific work, including natural history collecting, was able to continue and a new emphasis was placed on community involvement. This would be the Academy’s home for the next 100 years.
Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908
At its founding, the Academy was one of only a few natural history museums in the nation. As such, its purview extended from coast to coast. As other similar institutions were founded, the Academy narrowed its scientific work to focus primarily on the Midwest and on specific kinds of organisms. Frank Baker, an Academy curator from 1894 to 1915 and prominent malacologist, conducted ecological surveys across Illinois and scientifically described many new species of snails. Among his significant publications are The Mollusca of the Chicago Region, several papers on anatomy of Lymnaea (a group of common pond snails), and a taxonomy of the family Muricidae (a diverse group of sea snails). Many of these publications are still relevant to malacological research today, and the historical record provided by Baker’s surveys gives us high-quality comparison data to assess how our local ecosystem has changed in the past hundred years.
Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915
Traditionally, animal specimens were preserved as study skins or as crudely stuffed mounts. Then, in the early 1910s, a man named Carl Akeley pioneered new specimen preparation techniques that enabled him to create more realistic displays. The Academy also began to experiment with these ideas, and devised large, meticulously detailed dioramas as a new way to represent local species and natural areas.
Frank Woodruff, an ornithologist, curator, and director at the Academy from 1896 to 1926, oversaw the development of the “Chicago Environs Series,” a group of exhibits that presented natural areas around Chicago. His first life-size diorama, depicting the dunes ecosystem and the Calumet River, used photographs that were enlarged up to 11 feet high by 10 feet wide for the backdrops. Here, Woodruff (in suspenders) and other Academy staff process one of these diorama backdrops.
Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915
Field trips, like the one pictured here, were among the many ways the Academy actively included the Chicago community in its scientific work and promoted the appreciation of nature. Students who accompanied Academy naturalist Henry Cowles to the Indiana Dunes gathered data that eventually resulted in his theory of ecological succession—the idea that a habitat naturally progresses (e.g. from pond to wetland to shrubland to forest) as certain species dominate resources and then die off. In addition to offering field trips, the Academy’s innovative teacher training programs helped make Chicago’s teachers some of the most scientifically literate educators around, while lectures, films, and nature walks were popular with the broader community. For local naturalist groups, the Academy provided a home with space to meet and experts to interact with.
Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 1937 (left)
Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937 (right)
Continuing efforts to document and study biodiversity, the Academy conducted several faunal surveys of the American Southwest between 1937 and 1946. The specimens, photographs, and motion film brought back to Chicago were shared through public lectures and publications, providing many Chicagoans with their first look at this desert environment. Spearheading the Arizona expeditions was Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy from 1936 to 1958. Among many other scientific advancements, Gloyd published “The Rattlesnakes: Genera Sistrurus and Crotalus” and so defined North America’s most iconic snakes, including Illinois’ now-endangered Massasauga. His wife, Leonara, studied dragonflies and accompanied him on at least one of the Arizona expeditions.
William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Academy revitalized its exhibits and expanded its education and outreach programs to further focus on Midwestern ecology. Under the leadership of William Beecher, director from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, the Academy increased its involvement in local environmental issues, from preserving the Indiana Dunes to monitoring bird collisions with windows. Beecher also implemented the Junior Academy of Sciences, a program aimed at middle and high school students to provide extracurricular learning opportunities for young people interested in science. Today we still have active volunteers who began in the Junior Academy fifty years ago.
Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990
Throughout its history, Academy lectures and symposiums have provided a venue for the community to learn about and be involved in scientific discussion. From the 1970s to 1990s the focus shifted away from taxonomic research to address pressing environmental issues, science education practices, and urban biodiversity. Among the influential meetings hosted by the Academy:
- “The Chicago Urban Environmental Conference” (1977) helped coalesce the land stewardship movement in Chicago.
- “Understanding Chimpanzees Symposium” (1986) and “Understanding Chimpanzees: Diversity and Survival” (1991) were attended by Jane Goodall and later credited by her as influencing to her work.
- “Science Learning in the Informal Setting” (1987) highlighted the importance of experiential learning.
- “Sustainable Cities Symposium: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity” (1990) was an early recognition of the role that urban habitat plays in conservation.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999
(Photo credit Dan Rest)
After 100 years in the Laflin Building, the Academy opened the doors to its new, larger home in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in October 1999. The Nature Museum provided the Academy a fresh venue through which to engage its audiences and continue to address the local environment in its exhibits, programs, and research.
Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015
Since 2001, the Academy has been leading conservation efforts for a variety of local, threatened species. In the Istock Family Butterfly Conservation Lab, thousands of rare butterflies are bred for release, including the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum) and Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). Partnering with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Academy staff have raised and released 236 baby Blanding’s turtles into the Chicago Wilderness region. Just this past fall, an Academy scientist found a hatchling Blanding’s turtle in the wild—the first one recorded within the project area since 1998.
Conservation efforts at the Academy include both animal husbandry and wild population monitoring, the success of which is largely due to the active participation of volunteer citizen scientists. Today, the Academy leads several citizen science initiatives: the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Project Squirrel, and The Calling Frog Survey. Award-winning lesson plans, teacher development courses, and public programs build on and support the Academy’s conservation efforts.
Explore nature in Chicago with us!
Chicago is an urban area, and yet, nature exists all around us. What kind of nature is in your backyard or neighborhood? How do you interact with nature? Share your urban nature experiences with us through social media, #urbannature.View Comments
Created: 1/8/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
Don’t you just love this time of year? The decorations, the parties, that feeling of excitement in the air? Wherever you go, you hear those old familiar phrases: Peace on earth, goodwill towards ferns…Have yourself a merry little pothos… Happy philodendrons to all, and to all a good night! I tell ya, you just can’t help but smile a little longer and a little stronger during this special season.
What’s that? You didn’t know?? How is that possible – have you been living under a rock? Houseplant Appreciation Day is January 10th! Clearly, it’s high time someone taught you the true meaning of Plantmas. No need for ghostly visitors, envisioning a world where you were never born, or stealing Cindy Lou Who’s last can of who hash; we can do this right here, right now. Read and learn, Ebenezer Grinch.
Ever seen one of these beauties?
They call it a money tree, because reasons. Will owning a money tree bring you inexplicably swimmable piles of coins, a la Scrooge McDuck? No, but if you were to let it grow to full size, you would get this:
Sweet genius, that is a legit, tropical rainforest tree with buttress roots, bats for pollinators, and big ol’ edible “chestnuts” for seeds. Who needs good fortune when you’ve a got a Pachira glabra (or rather, five of them braided together) growing in your house? A stalwart of new world rainforests, right on your coffee table? Now that’s worth appreciating.
Do you like to eat? Do you like to eat fresh fruit? Do you like to eat fresh fruit that you grew -- in your own house? Well then, you best be appreciatin’ this avocado variety hard. Tasty avocados from a three-foot tall tree in your living room – yep, that’s a thing. Also things are home grown bananas, citrus fruits, figs, mulberries, passionfruits, and even star fruits. Merry Plantmas indeed!
Aww, look at that little thing! It’s adorable. All pudgy and messy-haired like that schoolmate in the chess club you weirdly had a crush on in 8th grade. If that’s not enough to get you to appreciate this plant, check it out fully grown:
Magnificent! Still pudgy, but it’s blossomed in such an attractive way that you’re kicking yourself for not asking it to junior prom.
Not just a pretty face, this tree is tough. A relative of asparagus, the ponytail (not actually a) palm hails from sunny Mexico. Water stored in the trunk accounts for its bulbous look, and helps it endure extreme conditions. Mature specimens have been known to survive two years without water. No wonder they sometimes live for three centuries!
Last but not least, do you recognize this wild beauty?
Not really? Perhaps this picture will help:
“I appreciate you!”
That of course, is Euphorbia pulcherrima, otherwise known as the poinsettia. Talk about a plant we should be appreciating more – the poor poinsettia surely takes first prize in the “plant we’re most likely to buy and then throw in the trash while it’s still living a month later” contest. Granted, it is a hassle to get it to bloom the following year. And, as it grows it will become sparser and leggier. And the sap can be mildly irritating (not poisonous). And you can’t plant it outside, because frost will kill it. So I guess it’s really not surprising that people coldly toss them in the dumpster by the millions right around, well, now. But this Plantmas, let’s not forget to pour out an eggnog for our fallen poinsettias. So young… So tragic…
There. Now do you understand the true spirit of Houseplant Appreciation Day? Are you ready to gift your houseplants with the finest fertilizers, the most beautiful pots, and the tastiest sunlight? I thought so. Your heart’s grown three sizes this day.
Created: 12/31/2015 Updated: 1/8/2016
As we began closing out 2015, we asked our visitors to make a New Year's #ResolutionForNature. We asked them to complete an ornament to be hung on our Resolution tree, and the response was incredible. Visitors of all ages stopped to pledge their natural resolution for 2016, and we wanted to highlight our top 20 favorites. Check them out below! Then, share your own #ResolutionForNature with us in the comments section. Happy New Year and a Green 2016!
Created: 11/20/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Cook County has an extensive forest preserve system that has served as an example of habitat preservation, public involvement in stewardship, and species conservation throughout the world. This land also provides a variety of ecosystem services, such as flood control that, along with the sheer beauty of the space, increases the value of our neighborhoods. And, of course, the forest preserves provide space for a wide range of recreational opportunities. Whether you simply want a peaceful place to walk or a shelter to host a family reunion; if you need a path to bike, skate, or run on, or a river to paddle in; if you like to bird watch or fish, the forest preserves are there for you. You can even do things like golf, fly model airplanes, ride horses, snowmobile, ski, and more. To me, it has long seemed the only thing missing in our forest preserves was camping. Well, that lack is no more. This summer, under the leadership of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the forest preserves are now home to five campgrounds, too.
These campsites are set up for people of all camping preferences with places for tents, groups, RVs, and even cabins.
I am admittedly a campground snob. I grew up backpacking so if I’m going to spend time in a developed campground, it has to be a good one. Even for an overnighter, I usually drive an hour or two from home. However, after my experience at Bullfrog Lake last weekend, I discovered that nice campsites are within walking distance.
Visitors who have to drive from home will usually miss such sublime scenes as watching steam rise from the pond and listening to ice tinkle as it melts in the first rays of sun…or frost-kissed leaves.
First of all, booking was easy (much better than the online booking for most state parks) and a staffer called me a few days before I was scheduled to show up to check in and see how many parking passes I would need. Our group arrived well after dark and I was a little worried that I would have to deal with a gate, a trick padlock, or some obstacle. Nope. The path was clear, the signs direct, and the campsite easy to find.
The office is always open, stocked, and staffed by exceptionally friendly folks.
I set the kids to pitching the tent while I wandered over to the headquarters to see how check-in would work. I expected a dark hut, lit with a single mercury vapor bulb next to a cobweb filled pipe where I was supposed to cram some damp paper work. Again I was wrong. It turns out the forest preserve campgrounds are staffed 24 hours a day. I stepped into a well-lit, well-stocked, heated reception cabin and was welcomed by a staff member so enthusiastic that she would make Smokey the Bear seem grumpy. Check-in took a few seconds, plus time to spin a prize wheel (I won a free high five but the guy after me won a boat rental). Moments later, I was heading back to my camp site with a few pieces of well-seasoned ash wood.
The physical construction of our site was excellent and well prepared for heavy use. Where the average campground would use a few treated 4x4 posts to display site numbers, hold lanterns, and mark boundaries, this campground used 8X8s, heavy steel posts, and wide concrete. Paths around the site are wide, firmly packed limestone. Roads are wide enough to for two way car traffic without being so wide they feel like a barrier. The bathrooms are constructed on slabs with meter-high concrete wall foundations, finished with hardboard siding.
These features may seem inconsequential but such details are the difference between a durable campground that feels comfortable for years to come and a place that will soon feel more like Lower Wacker. For example, in addition to looking good, the high foundations on the bathroom ensure durability and ease of cleaning. They also keep out the bugs. Well packed trails ensure that trails drain and remain functional year round.
Year round functionality is important because these campgrounds are open 362 days a year. We were there on a cold night, the sort that makes one dread visiting the loo. As it turns out, the bathrooms are heated. They also have hot water, a shower, and automatic lights. Such details make camping very comfortable. In fact, I initially felt like heat and comfort was a bit excessive but then I met my camping neighbors.
These campgrounds are in the midst of one of the largest urban areas in the country. As might be expected then, many of the campers have never camped before. Frankly, for a first timer, especially if you don’t have an experienced buddy, camping can be daunting. Clean, spacious, heated bathrooms go a long way to making a pleasant experience for a neophyte. And the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. If you don’t have camping gear, the office has a variety of things for sale, including sleeping bags. They also have things like naturalist backpacks with binoculars and field guides available for check out. Apparently there are also staff-led nature hikes, archery, and other programs at times, too.
The landscaping uses a wide variety of native plants and, as it matures, will make the sites even better. This Echinacea was just outside my tent door.
I think such amenities are really important because camping can be a powerful way to learn about and appreciate nature. When you are camping, you are more likely to be at the right place and time to see amazing animals, plants, and natural phenomena than if you have to drive there from home. We saw tons of birds as they began their day--flickers, a downy woodpecker, a flock of geese flying into the mist on Bullfrog Lake-- and a wide range of frost-spangled plants. But the great thing is, you don’t even have to sleep in a tent to have these experiences, either. Across the path from the tent sites are camper sites with electric hook ups (and access to a dump station) and up the slight hill from there are some small cabins. Nearby, with a nice lake view, are some larger cabins, too. Clearly, the needs of people from all experience levels and abilities have been considered in the planning and construction of these camps.
Can you spot the foraging downy woodpecker? We watched him for 15 minutes.
After a nice hike in the frost- flaked air, I stopped by the office again. The staff person was new but the cheerfulness and devotion to the campers was the same. In the end, I’d say this is the best run, best built, and cleanest developed camp site I have ever been to. The only thing that might be missing are a few logs to sit on around the fire and use as chopping blocks for fire wood but, then again, the place is pretty new. The native grasses, flowers, and trees are still establishing and they are obviously paying close attention to how people use the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to see logs the next time I go camping in the forest preserve. It’s not easy to have camping in an urban area and this is a first rate opportunity. I hope everybody in the county will take advantage of these places; maybe I’ll see you there. Anybody up for snow caving in February?
Created: 11/13/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
America Recycles Day is held annually on November 15 as an initiative of Keep America Beautiful and as part of the wider effort to get more Americans actively recycling. Since sustainability is so important to our institution, and plays such a big part of so many of our exhibits (including Peanuts...Naturally!)we wanted to help get citizens educated about recycling. We used America Recycles Day as an opportunity to field some of your recyling questions, and our Sustainability and Chicago Conservation Corps Manager Kristen Pratt found the answers!
Do we need to wash clean every container that goes into the recycling bin? Do they not get recycled if they still have stuff in them?
No. A small amount of food/beverage residual in the container is acceptable. Containers still partially full of food or liquid should be emptied before being placed in the blue cart. A benefit to rinsing containers is for sanitary purposes while storing the empty containers in the home, and the ultimate goal is to prevent the contamination of other recyclables (especially paper, which can't be washed). So...clean out what you can, but it doesn't have to be spotless!
What should we do with plastic caps?
Plastic bottle caps are generally made from different plastics than the bottle. Since different plastics are recycled in different ways, the caps should be separated from the bottles. That said: because people often DON'T remove the bottle caps, many recycling facilities have taken to cutting off the tops of bottles to separate the caps. Sometimes these caps are sold as a commodity, sometimes they aren't. For Blue Cart Recycling in Chicago, the caps ARE accepted, so throw 'em in!
Where can I recycle light bulbs?
Unbroken CFLs can go to the Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Facility or to most box stores where they are sold (Home Depot, Lowe's). Broken CFLs and incandescents go in the trash.
Where can I recycle old cleaning supplies?
Cleaning supplies go to HCCRF, as well.
Where can I recycle old pills?
Pills go to ANY police station.
Does the demand for recycled plastic drop after the price of oil decreases?
Yes, they're connected. Manufacturers often ask: which is cheaper? To make new plastic (out of oil) or to pay for post-consumer plastics? When oil is cheap, it unfortunately drives down the demand for the recycled plastics.
Want to learn more about Chicago Conservation Corps? Click here, or sign up for the C3 Volunteer Opportunities newsletter here. Have more pressing recycling questions? Submit them via this form and we will help find the answers!View Comments
Created: 10/22/2015 Updated: 10/24/2017
Halloween is just a week away, but if you still don’t have a costume ready to go, don’t worry. We have some scientifically-focused suggestions that date back to the early days of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, many of which you can recreate just by visiting a costume store, thrift store, or your own closet!
If you’re the outdoors type, rugged Academy founder Robert Kennicott is your man. To recreate his look, grab:
- A heavy, long wool coat
- A western style or oxford shirt
- A neck scarf or bandana
- Dark pants
- A woven sash and garters
- Moccasins or other soft shoes
- Unkempt hair and facial hair
Finish the look by toting around an animal pelt or, perhaps, a plush owl (bonus points if it is a Western screech owl, one of Kennicott’s scientific namesakes). Learn more about Robert Kennicott's work and legacy here.
Feeling a bit more refined? Academy founder and director William Stimpson is your man! Embrace the refined naturalist look by putting together the following ensemble:
- A frock coat or formal coat
- A collared shirt
- A floppy bow tie or cravat
- A formal vest
- A pair of old-fashioned spectacles
- Dark trousers
- A mustache
Finish the look by grabbing an aquatic invertebrate friend or two, perhaps a mollusk or crustacean, since Stimpson devoted much of his life to cataloging and researching aquatic invertebrates. Learn more about this work here.
Elizabeth Emerson Atwater
An important woman in the history of the Academy, and the history of botany, Elizabeth Emerson Atwater is the ideal subject for those who love plants and Victorian fashion. To create her look, assemble the following:
- Long-sleeve, Victorian style dress
- Victorian hairstyle – a low, parted bun is probably the easiest to attempt
Be sure to bring along a scrapbook of some plant clippings or pressings to complete the look! Did you know that Atwater embraced botany because it was one of the scientific activities that a "proper" lady could participate in? Learn more about her legacy here.
Howard K. Gloyd
Love all things reptile and amphibian? Then herpetologist and Academy director Howard K. Gloyd is the perfect costume for you! And the look is not very difficult to put together! Simply grab:
- A Panama hat
- A safari or cargo vest
- A white oxford shirt
- Tall hiking boots
- A bow tie
- A mustache
Gloyd spent his life researching herps of all kinds, so having a rubber snake or two in tow will help complete the look! Learn more about the species that are named after Gloyd here.
Created: 9/14/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
You may have noticed some new faces in our Blanding’s Turtle Conservation Lab, that’s because we have taken in a new group of Blanding’s hatchlings to headstart.
It all began a few months ago, when our Biology team and Dan Thompson of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County went out into the field to track down some gravid Blanding’s turtles that were ready to lay their eggs. Each turtle has a tiny radio transmitter attached to her shell which gives off a unique signal so using a receiver we can track them. After locating them, the turtles were put into secure laying pens so they could lay their eggs in safety before being re-released. The eggs were then collected and put into an incubator to hatch.
After a couple of months, the tiny turtles began to emerge from their eggs.
It was about at this same time that our 2014 hatchlings reached the point where they were ready to be released into the wild. So, a few weeks ago, our Biology staff, along with Dan Thompson, released 60 of our 2014 Blanding’s hatchlings into the wild. We kept 24 of the 2014 hatchlings (some of which you can see in our Blanding’s display tank in Mysteries of the Marsh), and have introduced 106 2015 Blanding’s hatchlings to the Conservation Lab.
The majority of turtle predation takes place as eggs or during the first two years of life. By giving the Blanding’s hatchlings a "headstart" at the Museum during this vulnerable time, we are increasing their chances of survival. Although our Animal Care team works hard to provide them with this headstart, we don’t want the turtles to become habituated to humans. In order to reduce the risk of this happening, our biologists keep handling to an absolute minimum and the turtles that are on exhibit at the Museum are behind one-way glass. This is all part of a larger effort, in collaboration with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, to help restore the population of this endangered, native species and help re-establish ecological balance to the area.
Created: 9/1/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects.
Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?
With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:
“Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.”
Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind -- Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.
Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.
In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.
Dawn RobertsView Comments
Created: 8/20/2015 Updated: 8/1/2016
Dead and dying trees are one of the most exciting parts of any landscape. Like a star in supernova, trees may persist for decades or even centuries before they are consumed in a flurry of activity. Of course this analogy brings to mind some of the wildfires that happen each year. The destructive power of fire in a dry, fuel-laden forest is both terrifying and exhilarating, the ratio of which probably determined by one’s distance from the fire and the skills and tools available to control the flames.
Trees burn so well because they are dense collections of carbon-rich molecules, such as cellulose, that are created, year after year as the tree uses energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to construct its architectural matrix. When terrestrial plants first arose, they could simply cover rocks and gather all the sunlight they needed. But, with the advent of stems and leaves, some plants were able to outcompete others for sunlight and so a cold war of sorts began. The individual with the largest leaves gathered the most sunlight while shading out the other plants. When one kind of plant grew taller, it was more successful. But at some point, gravity and wind would pull it back to the ground-- at best, making the race start again for that plant, at worst, killing it. But with the development of woody tissue plants could get taller and taller while withstanding the effects of gravity and wind as well as climbing vines, perching birds, and our clamoring primate ancestors.
This cellulose is tough and not very nutritive. Termites famously being one of the few animals that can, through their symbiosis with gut bacteria, eat it. Some species further protect their wood with a variety of toxins. The volatile oils found in eucalyptus are especially interesting—they contribute to the hot/cold feeling of products like Vicks and they are explosive when burned. Most animals that appear to eat wood actually only consume a thin layer of the plant found just beneath the bark called the phloem. This goes for rabbits, deer, voles, even beaver. Many wood-eating insects are also only found in the phloem, too, most infamously, the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer. The wood portion of a tree is useless to most organisms.
Of course you can see all sorts of animals in a forest but dead and dying trees are rare, at least in a healthy forest, so there are many species that utilize them more frequently than a given living tree, dead trees called snags are like the corner bodega where it seems everybody stops briefly during the day. Lack of leaves makes snags perfect perches for birds of prey. Even more importantly, as water, ice, fungi, and bacteria invade and soften the wood, that once tough and useless superstructure becomes accessible to many more species.
Woodpeckers are the most famous cavity nesting birds. They have a range of special adaptations that allow them to be among the first animals to take him take advantage of softwood: toes and claws that can grip vertical surfaces, stiff tail feathers that help form a tripod while they’re excavating, chisel shaped beaks, tendon strengthened for necks, and shockproof brains. Less specialized birds like nuthatches also excavate dead wood and there are a lot of species that either modify existing cavities or just move in to whatever is available. As the holes grow in size, they allow more water in which promotes fungal growth. Many species of fungus only grow on the decaying wood of certain species of tree. Soft wood also allows insects like carpenter ants to construct galleries to live in and raise their brood. (They don’t eat wood, they just remove it to create living space.) This soft, punky wood also provides good bedding for animals as diverse as mice and queen hornets.
All this leads me to the elm that I stopped at this morning. The tree is just 100 yards north of the Nature Museum along Cannon drive, south of a park bench. It’s mostly dead but still has a good quantity of sap within it. This sap is slowly oozing out nutritious sugary gobs of elm candy which are being eagerly consumed by many animals. Although these gobs are the elm equivalent of maple syrup at first, natural yeast in the air have also begun fermenting it. Standing beneath the tree, you can smell warm, beer-like yeasty-ness. This betrays the presence of alcohol, as well as sugar.
Here’s a list of the animals I’ve seen on the tree just today:
Birds: starlings, robins, barn swallows, flickers, English house sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and a crow
Mammals: I only saw one grey squirrel in the tree, and he was there simply because a dog was chasing him. I suspect squirrels will avoid the tree for some time due to some of the insects that are so prevalent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some rats eating the cicadas at the base in the evening though.
Arthropods: Here’s where you hit the jackpot. 2 species of ant, cicada exoskeletons and adult cicadas, moth egg masses, spider sacs, some cocoons (one with a dead pupae inside), flesh flies, picture winged flies, and house flies. The occasional butterfly flits past: red spotted purple, questionmark, red admiral, and painted lady. The coolest part though, are the hymenoptera galore! Of course the cicada killers are the most obvious, but there are also honeybees, bumblebees, yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and even an ichneumon.
There are lots of things I expect to see at the tree but have not seen there yet. Since the tree is an elm and is just dying this season, it should be able to stand safely for many years. It will be interesting to see all of the diversity that uses this tree over the next few years and seasons. I hope you’ll take the time to visit the elm and tell us what you have seen there, too.